Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Wheels of Justice

On April 11, 2007, a terrible miscarriage of justice was averted when North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dismissed all charges against the three Duke students accused of a variety of crimes that never actually happened.

One might wonder why I took almost two weeks to chime in on it. Mainly, I wanted some time to chew on a couple of issues. I've been considering, pretty deeply, a comment noted by Instapundit on the day after the dismissal. To wit: "A lefty blogger wonders why people care." Never mind that it's a lefty, it's a serious question, worthy of serious consideration. And so, why indeed? Why have I even paid a moment's attention to this case? Several points follow:

Numero Uno: Presumption of innocence. It is difficult indeed to overstate the importance of this principle. I don't always follow it scrupulously myself, and so find myself jumping to wrong conclusions at times. This principle has evolved over the years precisely for this reason: when we rush to judgement, we often rush to the wrong judgement. We need to wait for the information to come in, need to evaluate the evidence, then make a decision. But with some people, all it takes is an accusation to convince them. Especially if it's an emotionally charged situation, and especially if the alleged victim is of a particularly (ahem) victim-worthy group. BUT THAT'S WRONG! A man's reputation is a very fragile thing. All it can take is one slanderous whisper to ruin it. Upholding the presumption of innocence protects all of us, by forcing us to examine the actual evidence.

Numero Two-O: Presumption of innocence. I realize that, technically, this is the same as Numero Uno. But I thought it was so important, it deserved mentioning twice.

Numero Three-O: Correct Police Procedure. When you have the entire weight and awful majesty of the State arrayed against one man, it is absolutely imperative that the authorities adhere to their procedures scrupulously. It is far too easy for the State to manufacture convenient evidence, to tinker with suspect line-ups, to cherry-pick what they show or don't show to a grand jury. As one law enforcement professional told me once, you could indict a ham sandwich for larceny if you really wanted to. It is far too easy for the State to railroad someone with the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time into a lengthy prison sentence, and this has happened more often than we'd like to admit. We must be absolute sticklers on this point. Yes, we occasionally free the guilty on technicalities, but we also keep innocent men out of prison. That's worth something, isn't it?

Numero Four-O: Exculpatory Evidence. A subset of Numero Three-O to be sure, but worthy of mention. When you have ironclad, tamper-proof evidence that you cannot possibly have been in the same building that the crime was committed, that must be taken into account. When the case hinges on genetic material left by the perpetrator, and yours does not match, meaning that there is no possible way that you could been the one to do the deed, that must be taken into account. Next door in Dallas County, many men have been set free this year alone because new DNA tests on case evidence has proven that these men could not possibly have been guilty of the crimes for which they've been imprisoned. Some of these men have been in prison for ten, twenty years -- or more. How much better, if we can rule out innocent men before conviction, even before indictment? Naturally, hiding exculpatory evidence should be -- and is -- beyond the pale. Prosecutors who do this are beneath contempt.

All that said, the Duke players are undisputably, undeniably guilty of one thing. In my opinion, they are guilty of crass, boorish behavior that probably shamed their families when it came out. And one sure lesson you can draw from this case is that there are problems that a young man will never have, if he does not attend parties where a stripper will be present. But crass drunkenness and lechery, deplorable as they may be, are not legally actionable. You expect young men to exhibit the occasional lapse in judgement.

In a sane world, we'd have never heard about it. The lack of physical evidence, and the constantly shifting story from the accuser, would have sunk the case before it went to a grand jury. But it's not a sane world, and three families spent a great deal of money defending their sons against false charges. But at least it's a just world, once in a while, and they're free men today. More, the despicable shyster responsible for this farce will, in due course, be disbarred and lose his job. AG Cooper's statement on the 11th ripped Nifong up one side and down the other. It's pretty rare to see one official tear into another so viciously, and probably a precursor of paddlings to come. When it's all over, I wouldn't be surprised to see Mike Nifong in an orange jumpsuit.

So that's why I care. I love my country, and I support my government -- but I want 'em to keep their hands where I can see 'em. They work for me, not the other way around, and some of them forget that from time to time.

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